And so it ends. 2015 comes to an end and a new year, and a new year list, begin.
We started the New Year in Montenegro, and I’ll write about that in a few days’ time. But for now let’s have a look back on the past year, some of which I’ve written about in this blog before, but some of which I haven’t.
I came into last year on the back of what I suspected would be my lifetime “Big Year”, in 2014, in which I saw 580 species of bird across nine countries on two continents. How does 2015 compare in terms of raw statistics? Well, I certainly raised my binoculars in more countries this year – 19 of them, across four continents. But I had much less time for dedicated birding than the year before, so though the geographical spread is much greater, the species total comes in at a little over 100 fewer: 475 species, in fact, of which an amazing 93 (i.e. a little under a fifth) were new to me. It seems that there are still an awful lot of birds out there that I've yet to see, and thank goodness for that.
The year started sedately enough, with good birding on the Belgian coast in January and early February, which I wrote about at the time. Thereafter came a flurry of business trips, only some of which I had a chance to write up: Egypt in February; Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and the Seychelles in March and April; Kenya and Ethiopia again in April. But the best trip for birds in this first half of the year was one I didn’t write up at the time; a week in the US at the end of April, with work visits to Washington and New York and an opportunity to visit by brother in Florida.
My parents lived for a year in Washington in the late ‘nineties, and loved it, as indeed do I. It was on visits to them that I lost my North American birding virginity, on long walks along the Chesapeake and Ohio canaltowpath, and on visits to Dyke Marsh and Huntley Meadows. But the find for me on this visit was Rock Creek Park, which I don’t remember visiting when my parents lived there. A walk from the visitor center to the Potomac produced some wonderful birds, including my first Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula), Louisiana Waterthrush (Parkesia motacilla) and Wood Thrush (Hylocichla mustelina).
In New York I was initiated into the Big Apple’s migrant frenzy, taking an early walk into Central Park, in an incongruous mixture of suit and binoculars, and finding numerous other birders whose attitude to me seemed to range in binary manner between the two poles of eager assistance and jealous competitiveness, with nothing in between. The birds were wonderful, though; my first real experience of massed North American warblers – birds that look to the European eye like creatures designed by Faberge, in comparison to our dull greens and browns. Here I had my first Yellow (Dendroica petechia), Palm (Dendroica palmarum) and Black-and-White Warblers (Mniotilta varia), as well as a Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula) which, in a fit of over-eager migration fever, I originally took to be an early Empidonax flycatcher.
|The migrant hotspot in Central Park, New York. I forget now what people call it.|
From here I headed to Florida. It’s not a state I would have much enthusiasm for if my brother didn’t live there, as he has for the past decade or so, after various wanderings in South America. I’d visited him here only once before, coincidentally around the same time of year. Will is a biologist, but where I look up, he has generally looked down; fish are his thing, professionally, with an old hobbyist sideline in reptiles and amphibians. But he’s coming late to birding, and bought his first proper pair of binoculars in the course of last year, and he’s always been game to take me birding whether in the US or in Brazil or Peru in the past. Last time I visited him here I had two wonderful days around Merrit Island and the Orlando Wetlands Park at Christmas (the place, not the religious holiday). But on that occasion I had missed two of the regional specialities; Florida Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma coerulescens) and Limpkin (Aramus guarauna), the latter case made more bitter by the fact that Will did see it when I was looking elsewhere.
|An Anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) at the Orlando Wetlands Park. Perhaps the best photo of any bird that I've taken to date.|
Defaulting to the places we knew, and knew to be good, we returned these two same locations on this visit and amassed a great list of birds. I had my first Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis), Black-throated Blue Warbler (Dendroica caerulescens) and Black Skimmer (Rynchops niger) as well as reintroducing myself to birds I’d last seen back in 2009. And, yes, at the Canaveral National Seashore I got my Scrub-Jay, despite an officious National Parks Service guard trying to shoo us away from the reserve early.
|The highly range-restricted Florida Scrub-Jay.|
May and June brought Spring migrants and summer visitors in Belgium, the Netherlands, Croatia and Montenegro and was followed, as usual in Europe, by a lull in July.
|A beautiful shot of a Common Tern (Sterna hirundo) taken by my older son from the ferry from Dunkerque to Dover in July.|
August, though, brought another trip that I didn’t write about at the time. As part of an agreement with myself to get my health in order and invest more in old friendships, being the most lasting, I undertook the Tour du Mont Blanc, a seven-day walking loop around the mountain through France, Switzerland and Italy, with two old mates and my older son. As mentioned, this trip was primarily about friendship and health, in that order, but I obviously hoped for birds, and though I didn’t catch-up with the greatest prize – a Lamergeier (Gypaetus barbatus) – I did have some wonderful sightings including my first White-winged Snowfinches (Montifringilla nivalis) in Italy, wonderful views of Spotted Nutcrackers (Nucifraga caryocatactes) in Switzerland and a tantalizing glimpse of an Alpine Citril-finch (Carduelis citrinella) in France.
|A view of Mont Blanc from the walk in August. From a birding perspective this would not set the world on fire, but seeing scenery like this every day for a week, not to mention the exercise and camaraderie, more than made up for that.|
September, October and November were based in Europe and provided little or no time for birding, though I had my wonderful experience of Cranes in Luxembourg in early October. Then it was back on the road again in December, with my best birding trip of the year in Ethiopia followed by a fascinating visit to Eritrea, which I’m in the process of writing-up now, and which included perhaps the most unexpected of all my birding, if not the most unexpected of birds, this year.
And there was a nice, subdued coda as well. For the past couple of years I seem to have got lucky on New Year's Eve, adding one species to the year list the day it closes. In 2014 it was a showy Black Woodpecker (Drycopus martius) at the Doode Bemde reserve near Brussels. In 2015 it was a pair of Marsh Tits (Parus palustris) in the bushy garrigue around our house in Montenegro; my first birds of this species not only for the year, but for the village and garden lists there too.
So, all in all, an excellent year. Considering how few days I was actually able to dedicate to birding in 2015, compared to 2014, my 475 species last year seems pretty damn respectable. And it included some beauties. Any or all of the American warblers could easily vie for my bird of the year, as could the White-crested Helmet-shrikes (Prionops plumatus) I saw in Eritrea, the European Rollers (Coracias garrulus) seen in Mogadishu, the White-tailed Tropicbirds (Phaethon lepturus) that were so common in the Seychelles, or the extraordinarily unexpected Ankober Serin (Serinus ankoberensis) at Debre Libanos in Ethiopia.
But, in the end, there’s something about monotypic bird families. Back in 2013 when I saw my first Crab Plovers (Dromas ardeola) in Djibouti, they would have been my bird of the year. They were just so – well – odd, so different. And this year the prize goes to an equivalent species seen in the US in May. I try not to hope too much when I visit a site where a special bird can be seen. Or, rather, I allow myself hope but try not to let that mutate into expectation. It’s a way of mentally preparing myself for disappointment, and therefore being thankful for what I do see. I suspect this is the state of mind of most birders for much of the time, and is important because to be too much sated robs you of appetite, and if you're too prone to disappointment then you're unlikely to stick to birding anyway, which is a pastime, like angling, which is almost entirely about deferred, and anticipated, gratification.
But with Will having seen a Limpkin last time we had visited the Orlando Wetlands Center it was impossible for me not to hope for one for myself this time. We were well over two hours into our visit and my hopes were flagging when Will's girlfriend Kati picked up the bird that was to be my first of this species, this genus, this family - one that Will and myself had both missed despite our expensive Swarovskis and, in my case, years of birding experience. And so my bird of the year goes to that Limpkin, not only because I finally saw it this year, but because it caused such pleasure to Kati to find it for me.
|A distant shot of my bird of the year - a Limpkin at Orlando Wetlands Park, with a Common Gallinule (Gallinula galeata) in the foreground.|